By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The fifth-grade teacher of Colorado theater gunman James Holmes on Monday described his former pupil as a popular, bright student in testimony which defense lawyers hope will spare the convicted mass murderer from execution.
Last week, a jury of nine women and three men found Holmes guilty of fatally shooting 12 moviegoers and wounding 70 others during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" at a Denver-area multiplex in July 2012.
Paul Karrer, a teacher at the central California elementary school that Holmes attended during the 1998-99 school year, was testifying on the third anniversary of the massacre ahead of a sentencing hearing where the same jurors will decide if the 27-year-old should be executed or serve a life sentence.
Karrer said that Holmes, whom he knew as "Jimmy," was a smiling, athletic boy who other pupils looked up to. He and another student were so far ahead of other students academically, Karrer said, that they even wrote the code for their own website, long before such knowledge was common place.
"He was like a renaissance child," Karrer said of Holmes.
Karrer was unavailable to testify during the forthcoming sentencing phase of the trial, so his testimony was videotaped outside the presence of the jury, and will be screened later for the panel in open court.
During the guilt phase of the trial, defense lawyers said that after Holmes' family moved back to southern California he began to exhibit signs of mental illness that culminated into full-blown schizophrenia.
Two court-appointed psychiatrists concluded that while Holmes is severely mentally ill, he was sane when he planned and carried out the rampage.
The jury rejected the testimony of two psychiatrists who were hired by the defense and said that the former neuroscience graduate student was insane. The jurors can, however, take that into account when deciding on his punishment.ha,
The sentencing phase of the trial, which begins on Wednesday, is expected to last up to a month.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)